Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/17/2020
Have you ever caught yourself obsessing over something that should have been trivial or worrying yourself sick about an outcome you had no control over? Welcome to anxiety.
Your thoughts race and your heart seems like it’s trying to keep up. Your body tenses, breath becomes shallow and what may have begun as a simple concerning thought — “I wonder if I’ll have to speak at our team meeting today?” — could send you spiraling towards a full-blown panic attack.
Anxiety affects millions of people. You are far from alone. But when you’re in the thick of it, it couldn’t feel more isolating.
Anxiety is an emotion, and like most emotions, it’s completely natural. But like many other emotions, just because anxiety is natural doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant.
The emotion of anxiety is characterized by worry, tension, fear and some physical changes like increased blood pressure. You may feel it before you present in a meeting, have a big test or ask your favorite waitress for her telephone number.
In most cases, anxiety is uncomfortable, but not life-disrupting. When it is disruptive or excessive given the circumstances, you may be dealing with more than just the normal, occasional bouts of nerves.
The psychological signs of anxiety are often the first noticed, and may begin with something as simple as a worrying thought. But that little worry may turn into anxiety when it becomes exaggerated and obsessive. The psychological symptoms of anxiety may include:
Worry disproportionate to the issue at hand
Vivid dreams/flashbacks to trauma
While the psychological symptoms of anxiety are often most apparent — obsessive worrying, anyone? — they are closely tied to physical responses in the body.
When you’re stressed out, your body can become tense. We’ve all experienced it. Well, when you’re anxious — and particularly when you’re chronically anxious — your body responds in kind. Physical symptoms of anxiety can include:
Increased heart rate
Faster, shallower breathing (hyperventilation)
Shaking or trembling
In addition to these immediate symptoms, it’s believed anxiety can have long-term physical implications. It may be tied to heart disease, digestive disorders and chronic respiratory illness, according to Harvard Health.
Experiencing anxiety and being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are related, but not the same. In order to receive a diagnosis, the anxiety must be out of proportion to the situation, impact your ability to live normally and likely be persistent or ongoing.
It’s estimated as many as 40 million U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder. They are the most common mental illness in the country, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders, each characterized by unique symptoms and/or triggers. Some forms of anxiety disorder include:
Generalized anxiety disorder is an exaggerated and ongoing worry that interferes with your normal life. It’s estimated GAD affects about three percent of the U.S. population.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is experienced by people who’ve witnessed something traumatic — violence, rape, combat, etc. — and continue to have intense lingering thoughts and feelings related to that traumatic event.
Panic disorder is characterized by panic attacks, or periods of intense fear/anxiety marked by overwhelming physical and psychological symptoms.
Phobias are fears of specific objects or experiences such as a fear of heights or certain animals.
Social anxiety disorder is an avoidance of social interactions due to a fear of embarrassment or rejection.
Separation anxiety disorder is a fear of being alone or away from certain people.
Anxiety often goes untreated, whether due to a lack of support for the person afflicted or because of the stigma associated with mental illness. For some people that suffer from occasional, mild anxiety, stress management and meditation can help. But for others, it’s important to get professionals involved.
Psychotherapy is often the first line of defense for people suffering from anxiety. There are many types of therapy, but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective for anxiety disorders, according to The Mayo Clinic.
CBT involves unlearning behaviors that may contribute to your anxiety and replacing them with healthier strategies. For example, learning to intercept worrying thoughts before they become obsessive and lead you to a full-blown anxiety or panic attack.
For some people, prescription medications can help manage an anxiety disorder. Both anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants can be useful in anxiety treatment.
Alternative mental health treatments run the gamut — from hypnosis to acupuncture. But not all of these treatments are evidence-based.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends stress management and relaxation techniques, yoga and regular exercise as potential options. The Mayo Clinic echoes these recommendations and adds making sleep a priority, eating healthy and avoiding alcohol and drugs, which can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
Recognizing anxiety is impacting your life is the first step towards managing it. Reaching out for help can be difficult, but a necessary next step for many.
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